Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is an enzyme naturally manufactured in the body that is utilized in aerobic metabolism to produce energy. Commonly referred to as simply lipoic acid, this organic compound is a potent antioxidant. However, lipoic acid is actually a metabolite of alpha lipoic acid also known as dihydrolipoic acid. This reduced form of alpha lipoic acid contains lipoate, which is used by several other enzymes in oxidative metabolism.
Since alpha lipoic acid has demonstrated antioxidant effects in numerous studies, it is available as an oral dietary supplement. However, it is also found in a variety of foods, including organ meats, brewer’s yeast, potatoes, broccoli, and spinach. The primary action of alpha lipoic acid is to inhibit oxidative stress. This is achieved by counteracting free radicals, the waste products creat when converting food into energy.
Alpha lipoic acid also assists other antioxidants to protect cells from oxidative damage, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and glutathione. Both dihydrolipoic acid and alpha lipoic acid also exhibit chelating properties, which means they bind with heavy metals to remove them from the bloodstream. In addition, alpha lipoic acid prevents glycosylation, which occurs from the abnormal attachment of a sugar to a protein. This is the same process that occurs when food browns in the oven, resulting in the formation of potential carcinogens. Likewise, in the human body, dangerous by-products may also be produced.
Alpha lipoic acid has been studied for its capacity to prevent and/or treat a variety of conditions and diseases. Since it can pass the blood-brain barrier to provide antioxidant effects on neural cells, alpha lipoic acid may be helpful in preventing Alzheimer's disease as well as stroke. In fact, studies involving animal models show that supplementation with alpha lipoic acid increases the chance of surviving a stroke four-fold. Alpha lipoic acid has also been shown to remove mercury from brain tissue.
Due to its detoxification properties, alpha lipoic acid may be helpful in treating liver disorders, such as chronic hepatitis. In fact, alpha lipoic acid has long been the standard treatment for poisoning from Amanita, a highly toxic mushroom. However, alpha lipoic acid has not demonstrated any significant benefit for liver damage from excessive alcohol consumption.
Numerous studies have found that alpha lipoic acid may improve symptoms of peripheral neuropathy associated with diabetes. In fact, it is commonly prescribed for this purpose in Europe. Studies have also shown that alpha lipoic acid also improves glucose uptake and may play a role in protecting the kidneys.
While alpha lipoic acid is generally considered safe, supplementation by certain individuals should be monitored by a health care professional. For instance, since alpha lipoic acid impacts serum glucose levels, care must be taken to prevent hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar in diabetics. In addition, alpha lipoic acid may interact with some medications, such as thyroid hormones and certain antibiotics.